Haiku: A Form Not A Style

(photo courtesy of Kayoko Sato)

There is no unequivocal doubt about the fact that many Western ideas about Japanese haiku have been completely wrong. How these wrong ideas about came into fashion is probably something that happened because haiku opened up to the West in an era when ideas about poetry were being rethought, but it is now paramount for poets in the West to come to the truth that the idea that Zen is the underlining tradition that defines the haiku genre is false and must be discarded.

Honestly, it is quite frightening to see it being still argued by people serious about poetry. It was more than unquieting to see Stephen Adams in “Poetic Designs” (pg. 99) offer this up as the definition for what the form of haiku is:

“most poets imitate not its formal pattern (or its other elaborate Japanese conventions) but it’s paradoxes and logical dislocations, the Zen spirit that underlies the tradition and that seems compatible with Western theories like imagism.”

The reason why that “Zen spirit, a.k.a haiku” is compatible with theories like imagism is because translators have mistakenly made it so. And there are no better examples of this than the two haiku that Adams used in his book.

The first is by Matsuo Basho:

On the wide seashore
a stray blossom and the shells
make one drifting sand.

To honest about it, some haiku translations are so far away from the original that it is quite hard to be sure of what haiku it is if the original isn’t quoted. Adams got these translations from a book by William Howard Cohen, “To Walk in Seasons: An Introduction to Haiku”, and in its preface Cohen states “these translations are freely made poems based on the originals” and he since he didn’t bother to include the original he was working from, one has to make an educated guess of what Basho haiku is being dealt with here. I’d think that it was this:


Nami no ma ya kogai ni majiru hagi no chiri

“Nami” is “wave”
“no” is the possessive (‘s) which translates to “of”
“ma” means “interval” or “pause”
“ya” is a interjection that is an exclamation (!)
“Kogai” is “small shells”
“ni” is “in” or “at”
“majjiru” is the verb of “mix”, “mingle” or “blend”
“hagi” is “Japanese Bush clover tree” that have pink or red blossoms “no” is the possessive (‘s) which translates to “of”
“chiri” is “dust”,”trash” or “rubbish”

To put this into a more poetic form:

The pauses between waves! 
Pink bush clover 
with the small shells. 

The first thing to say about this is that the Japanese bush clover bloom many small blossoms that fall and can scatter as much as the cherry blossoms do, although not quite as dramatically, which makes it very improbable that Basho was writing about a single blossom as Cohen gave us.

Besides this, the translator also changed quite of few of the images images around, he added in “seashore” when none was mentioned, proffered “drifting sand” instead of the “pause of the waves” devalued the “bush clover” into a nondescript “blossom”, changed “rubbish” into “stray” and ignored the size of the shells and depersonalized it by ignoring the exclamation Basho used to point out his emotional attachment to the scene.

Cohen’s rewrite simply erases all the subjective use of language that the original uses and so blurs the descriptive elements of the haiku into an objective act of writing, thus changing the haiku from a poet on the shore expressing delight at the beauty of an occurrence in nature into a tour de force image that paints an impersonal view of a wide expanse of nature.

Cohen gives you the sense that this is a completely deserted shoreline, something which is impossible in the Japanese because the language is implicit in having Basho at the shoreline describing the scene. In Japanese exclamations are only used as spoken particles by an “I” speaker, which in haiku means the poets themselves. When we see an exclamation point used at the end of a sentence we English speakers also understand that what it is attached to is something that is being spoken by someone and it is the same for Japanese speakers.

The whole idea that this haiku has “the Zen spirit” which Adams states as being “its paradoxes and logical dislocations” is immediately undermined by this because the heart of the language of haiku, especially the ones that use exclamatory interjections (of which there are plenty) immediately shows a different thought process than what Adams is paraphrasing from Cohen.

No one has to be a Zen adept to understand this, all you have to do study the Japanese language a little to understand that Basho never could write what Cohen has ascribed to him. Poets who write with exclamations are making emotional connections with what they experience in nature and are not involved in paradoxes or dislocations of thought.

The second haiku is by Kobayshi Issa and it does follow the original a bit more:

White, sifted mountain 
reverberates in the eyes 
of a dragonfly 


Touyama ga medama ni utsuru tonbo kana

“Touyama” is “distant mountain”
“ga” is a particle the makes the noun it follows the subject
“medama” is “eyeballs
“ni” is “in”
“utsuru” is verb meaning “reflect”
“tondo” is “dragonfly”
“kana” is an interjection that is exclamation

The mountains far 
are reflected 
in their 
the dragonflies! 

It’s hard to understand how Cohen got “white, sifted” when the original only says “far mountain”. It might have been used to imply that the mountains are snow covered, but the “kigo” (seasonal word) for “dragonflies” means that the haiku is set in the autumn, so it is hard to see how having them white fits in with the implied context that the seasonal word brings to this haiku.

The verb “reverberate” he used is acceptable, but it implies that the dragonflies actually have the mountains in their eyes, and the footnote that he put on this haiku in his book actually states that:

“This beautifully evoked encounter between the tenuous and the permanent recalls the Buddhist idea of the unreality of the visible world, in that the great mountain exists momentarily in the insect’s eye even as the great world exists in the mirror of the mind for the brief instant that is life.”

No one in Japan believes that the dragonflies actually have the mountains reflected it their eyes because the opening image of “far mountains” parenthetically makes it implausible to be so. What the “far mountains” at the opening of the haiku do is get the reader’s eyes up into the air which make you see the image of the dragonflies, posited at the last line and accented by the exclamation, as being airborne.

This makes you realize that Issa is punning about the dragonflies’ eyeballs reflecting the mountains because he is using it a device to imply something not mentioned in the haiku. Dragonflies are very active when it’s warm, and since they are flying about it means it is a clear blue sky autumn day, making easy to imagine that it is so clear that Issa might feel that the tiny dragonflies are able to see the mountains too.

It’s often said that the reader’s personal experience is what makes a haiku and what I’ve written above is based on my personal experiences of seeing the dragonflies fly around my house and over the rice paddies that checker board the area I live in. This doesn’t mean that you can’t read this haiku as being about one dragonfly as Cohen did (the Japanese language really doesn’t use plurals) and the dragonflies don’t have to be airborne either. However, one thing that you can’t read out of the haiku is that Issa has told you that he subjectively feels that the dragonflies have the mountains in their eyes, which is what Willard Howard Cohen’s translation did completely.

The phrase of “me in utsuru” (literally means “reflects in the eyes”) is an idiomatic expression that means “meet my eyes” or “to be able to have seen” and this echoes in the phrase of “medama ni utsuru” that Issa uses in the haiku. So, there is a bit of verbal play being employed to pull off the implied meaning in this haiku. This is, of course, quite contrary to Cohen’s belief that “deep dish imagery” was the way most haiku was written when he explained in his book that:

“we can put our fingers on one of the main devices by which the haiku achieves its characteristic effects. This consist of a simple ‘charged’ image with atmospheric, emotional of ‘mood’ effects. The ‘charged’ image is a way of conveying intense emotional content through a simple objective image.”

Cohen’s “charged image” theory is really only a paraphrasing ideas about the “deep image” style of writing which was a “stylized, resonant poetry that operated according to the Symbolist theory of correspondences, which posited a connection between the physical and spiritual realms” which is “narrative, focusing on allowing concrete images and experiences to generate poetic meaning.”

Unfortunately, to repeat the point I made above, the language that the Japanese haiku poets used immediately rules out this style of writing because they wrote with exclamations that colored subjective emotions onto the images they wrote with, which is something that the “deep image” was never about.

Exclamation becomes a kind of a trigger that alerts the reader that the poet is emotionally moved by what they are experiencing and then they go on to explore or express that emotion in the rest of the haiku. I think the two haiku being talked about here are good examples of how this works with the exclamation being set at the beginning and the end of haiku. Basho expresses wonder at the pauses in the waves and then fills in the reason why after, and Issa builds up the reflection in an eyeball and then gushes out what eyeball it is.

Having said this, it is important to note that I am not saying that there has never been any haiku written with “pure imagery”, or that Basho and Issa themselves never wrote anything but exclamatory haiku, but there is no getting around that fact that the “main way” the great haiku of the past was written is with exclamations.

The irony of Stephen Adams’ passage about haiku is that it is in a section titled ‘Stanza and Form’ because Adams explains absolutely nothing about the “form” of haiku. Indeed, he simples throws the idea of haiku as a form under the bus by writing “most poets imitate not its formal pattern (or its other elaborate Japanese conventions)”. Instead, he talks about how it “seems compatible with Western theories like imagism and “creates an implied metaphor by juxtaposing elements.”

What Adams is really telling you is that haiku isn’t a “literary form”; per se, rather it is only a poetic sensibility that is defined by a narrowed style of writing. This is something that the Japanese find quite absurd because they see the genre as a form and a form only, not a defined and regulated poetic style. It would be like arguing that a sonnet could only be written with paradox and bright imagery.

Another interesting thing is that Adams’ choice of apt examples of haiku in English is from a translator that is not known at all in the haiku world. Cohen’s translations do have a poetic heft to them that you rarely find in original English language haiku, but this isn’t question of Cohen’s ability as a writer, it is about the narrow range of possibilities that his ideas about writing give to haiku. Ideas that didn’t have a very long life cycle with our poets anyway, and ones that ignore all the possibilities that the Japanese can offer to us.

I can only unpoetically say it: it is time to flush this idea that a “poetic style” is what defines haiku as a “poetic form or stanza.” If one takes a look at what this “form” in Japanese original is, at the bare minimum it is a stanza form which calls for two breath pauses, one longer than the other with some kind of a cut between the two. If you want to count syllables, then this pretty clearly shows that it needs to be on an even number rather than the 17 that the original has. As for the poetic sensibility, that is up to the individual poet to find best what suits their talents.

And who knows, maybe there might be a day when people who write books to explain poetics will find enough original English language haiku written well enough to actually learn what one is. To be fair, Adams isn’t the real culprit here, so he can be let off the hook. It’s the people who have been writing haiku that have set it in such a deplorable state that it is neither been explained as plausible poetry in translations from the east nor written as believable original poetry in the west.



3 thoughts on “Haiku: A Form Not A Style”

  1. In the late 1960’s, William Howard Cohen was a professor, mentor, and friend of mine. Bill wrote and studied haiku on a daily basis in those days and may well have been working on “To Walk In Seasons”. I do not know. I also am not an expert on haiku. But I can assure you that wherever in the universe Bill Cohen is today, he is enjoying a belly laugh since self-aggrandizing writers are still trying to dissect and shred his little book more than 45 years after it was published. Here’s to you, Bill!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m a little confused about what kind of ‘self aggrandizing’ that I am doing with this article simply because I have the language ability in Japanese to dispute what Cohen wrote about haiku. I know I shouldn’t be, but I am still amazed how some people will always fear it. I’ve been around the haiku world for about twenty years now and I had never heard of Cohen until I read Stephen Adams’ book. So, it’s not like I was taking down a monolith when I wrote about him. The only reason I can find for Adams dusting Cohen’s book off and using it as the lone example of what haiku is in his book about poetics is because of the poet heft that Cohen wrote with. Given how all other writers have continually used conversational tone, this does make him unique. So, if Cohen is in the universe today, that should warm his belly up more than me dissecting his understanding of the Japanese language.

      Liked by 1 person

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